Leonard J. Arrington (d. 1999) served as the Church Historian of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1972 to 1982, and was widely respected as “the dean of Mormon history” and “the father of Mormon History” owing to his numerous influential contributions to the field.
A native of Twin Falls, Idaho, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Idaho in agricultural economics. Following service in North Africa and Italy during the Second World War, he completed a doctorate in economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
From 1946 until his appointment as Church Historian in 1972, he taught at Utah State University. When he assumed his new post, he also became Lemuel H. Redd Jr. Professor of Western American History at Brigham Young University, from which he retired in 1987. Over his career, he was a fellow at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, during 1956–57; a Fulbright professor of American economics at the University of Genoa, in Italy, from 1958–59; and a visiting professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles from 1966–67.
In 1977, Professor Arrington received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from his alma mater, the University of Idaho, and in 1982 Utah State University awarded him an honorary doctorate of humanities. In 2005, Utah State University created the Leonard J. Arrington Chair in Mormon History and Culture, which was sponsored by more than forty-five donors. The university also hosts the Leonard J. Arrington Mormon History Lecture Series, for which Arrington himself gave the inaugural lecture in 1996.
Dr. Arrington helped to establish the Mormon History Association in 1965 and served as its first president from 1966–1967. He also created the Western Historical Quarterly and served as president of the Western History Association (1968–69), the Agricultural History Society (1969–70), and the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association (1981–82).
In 1958, Harvard University Press published his path-breaking book Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830–1900, which is regarded by many as marking the birth of “the new Mormon history.” He followed with a steady stream of articles and books, including David Eccles: Pioneer Western Industrialist (Logan: Utah State University, 1975); with Dean May and Feramorz Y. Fox, Building the City of God: Community and Cooperation Among the Mormons (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), which won the Best Book Award from the Mormon History Association; with Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), which won the Best Book Award from the Mormon History Association; with Davis Bitton, Saints without Halos: The Human Side of Mormon History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1981); Brigham Young: American Moses (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), which won both the Best Book Award from the Mormon History Association and the Evans Biography Award from Utah State University; with Davis Bitton, Mormons and Their Historians (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988); History of Idaho, 2 vols. (Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 1994); and Adventures of a Church Historian (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998), which won a special citation from the Mormon History Association.
For his publications on American history, he was awarded the Western History Association Prize in 1984 and was made a Fellow of the Society of American Historians in 1986. After his death in 1999, the Mormon History Association created the annual Leonard J. Arrington Award in order to honor distinguished and meritorious service to the study of Mormon history. In 2002, he was posthumously awarded the first annual Lifetime Achievement Award by the John Whitmer Historical Association.